Decoding Chicken Package Labels: Here Are 9 Terms to Know

Decoding Chicken Package Labels: Here Are 9 Terms to Know

Kelli Foster
Sep 29, 2014
(Image credit: Faith Durand)

If you've ever felt totally confused when reading the label on a package of chicken I can guarantee that you're not alone. Not by a long shot. There are so many terms to know, and it seems like new labeling buzzwords keep popping up. It's can be tricky to know what's important versus marketing buzzwords that don't actually carry much weight.

To help you out, here's a rundown of the most common terms you're likely to encounter on packaged chicken, what they actually mean, and what's really important.

Chicken Label Terms That Actually Mean Something

  • Free range: This term is given to chickens that have access to the outdoors for at least part of the day. It's important to keep in mind, though, that this doesn't guarantee that the chickens actually go outside, they simply have the option to go outdoors. Chicken labeled as "organic" must also be "free range;" however not all "free range" chicken is "organic." According to the National Chicken Council, less than 1% of chickens raised nationwide are free range.
  • Organic: This is a label many of us flock to, but you should know that it doesn't necessarily mean it's the best quality or most-humanely raised chicken. The term "organic" is regulated by the USDA, and can only be used when no pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used in the poultry feed, and no antibiotics are used during any stage of production. And, as we mentioned above, all organic chicken must all be free range.
  • Antibiotic-free/raised without antibiotics: This chicken was raised without antibiotics commonly used to health maintenance, disease prevention and disease treatment.
  • 100% Vegetarian Diet: This simply means that the chicken was raised on feed free from animal by-products.
  • Pastured/pasture-raised: While it's not the most common label you'll see in the meat department at your local grocery store, it's definitely one of the better labels to look for. This term suggests that the chicken lived on a pasture with constant access to edible vegetation. In addition to regular feed, these birds also get a portion of their diet from their natural environment, such as grass, seeds and bugs.
  • Heritage: As heirloom is to vegetables, heritage is to meat. Heritage birds are the oldest breeds around, and are raised more humanely than factory chickens. Heritage chickenss can be hard to come by and they tend to carry a hefty price tag.
(Image credit: Elizabeth Passarella)

Chicken Label Terms That Are Just Marketing

  • Natural: This is a misleading marketing term, and actually has nothing to do with how the chicken is raised. It simply means the chicken contains no artificial ingredients, like coloring agents and preservatives.
  • Farm-raised: Just what it sounds like, this means that the chicken was raised on farm, as all chickens are. This is mostly a marketing buzzword and often used on restaurant menus to denote locally raised chickens.
  • Hormone free/raised without hormones: The Food & Drug Administration prohibits the use of any type of hormones in the production of all poultry in the U.S. So, this term actually applies to all chicken. Any brand of chicken that includes this term on the label must all note that no hormones are used in the production of any poultry.

What's most important to you when buying chicken?

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